McAuley: Mapping Out The NL Playoff Landscape
The Atlanta Braves clinched the National League East on Sunday, but that is only the first of four champagne celebrations they hope to have by the time the 2013 season comes to a close.
One final week remains before the postseason picture comes completely into focus, but the Braves are in position to enjoy the majority of their October baseball at Turner Field. They can secure home field advantage throughout the playoffs by holding onto the NL’s best record.
A handful of teams are chasing Atlanta (92-63) for that prize, but time is running out for all of them to make a move. The Braves own a major league-best 52-22 record at home, making this final seven-game push of added importance.
While the West champion Los Angeles Dodgers (90-66) have been baseball hottest team for the better part of three months, they have cooled in September and were overtaken in the race for best record by the Central-leading St. Louis Cardinals (91-65).
The NL Central has been the most hard-fought of the three divisions in the senior circuit, if not all of baseball. Only two games separate the Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds (both 89-67). It’s a race so close that all three of those teams remain in the discussion for a division title, wild card berth(s) and perhaps even the best overall record in the league.
Strength of schedule…
Atlanta: The Braves’ lead for best record in the NL and home field advantage currently stands at 1.5 games ahead of the Cardinals, 2.5 games up on the Dodgers and 3.5 games on both the Pirates and Reds.
Only two series remain for Atlanta, and both are against under .500 teams. They’ll open this final homestand with a three-game series against the Milwaukee Brewers (69-86) before welcoming the Philadelphia Phillies (71-84) for four games. That makes the Braves the only playoff team that has seven games remaining on the schedule.
A pair of opponents with losing records looks favorable on paper, but Atlanta has just a 9-9 combined mark against Philadelphia and Milwaukee this season. With the division already in hand, it will also be interesting to monitor exactly how Fredi Gonzalez uses his pitching staff and lineup down the stretch.
St. Louis: The Cardinals just took 2-of-3 from the Brewers over the weekend, but now head home to face the Washington Nationals (84-72) for the next three days. This will be just the second time the two clubs have met this season, with St. Louis having swept the prior series (April 22-24).
The Nationals may well be the hottest team in the NL as their Wild Card aspirations remain barely alive. It’s unlikely Washington will be able to pull it off and make it into October, but playing spoiler against St. Louis – the team that knocked them out of the 2012 postseason – would suit the Nats just fine.
While they do get to close the season with three games against the Chicago Cubs (65-91), from whom they have won 9-of-16 this season, the Cards have a slightly more challenging final week than Atlanta.
Los Angeles: The Dodgers will begin a three-game set with the San Francisco Giants (72-84) on Tuesday. No doubt the memory of San Fran’s recent three-game sweep (September 13-15) is fresh on their mind as they face Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Tim Lincecum this time around.
From there, L.A. closes its season at home against the Colorado Rockies (71-86) for the final three games. While they get to square off against the two bottom teams in the NL West, it’s worth noting that the Dodgers are just 7-9 against the Giants and 8-8 against the Rocks.
Like the Braves, there is a very real possibility that Don Mattingly will use the next week to rest some players and ease the workload of his pitching staff. We’ll see how that impacts the race for home field advantage.
Pittsburgh: The Pirates were holding onto 1st place when September began, but have gone 9-10 in the month of September while the Cardinals pulled in front by going 13-8 this month. With no opportunity to play the Cardinals again in the regular season, it makes the path to Pittsburgh’s first division title since 1992 a bit more perilous.
Now they find themselves tied for the NL Wild Card lead with the Reds, with one head-to-head showdown on the slate to close the season. Before that takes place, the Pirates have a three-game series with a Cubs team they’ve gone 10-6 against thus far.
Pittsburgh has an 8-8 record against Cincinnati this season, but just dropped 2-of-3 in at home to the Reds over the weekend. Additionally, all six of the Pirates’ remaining games will be on the road. This makes their final week perhaps the toughest of all the NL clubs vying for the postseason.
Cincinnati: The Reds will have three games with the New York Mets (71-84) before they host the Pirates to close the season. Cincinnati brings the momentum from taking 2-of-3 from the Pittsburgh in the aforementioned weekend series into what appears to be a climactic final encounter between the two teams.
The stage is set in the Central, and the Pirates and Reds are in the unique position of holding their postseason destiny in their respective hands.
At worst, the One Game Wild Card appears to be the consolation prize for two of the three teams involved in this pennant chase. While Cardinals proved last year that it doesn’t have to be a bad thing, one of these three teams will be on the outside looking in when the NLDS begins.
This could have been a longer and more complicated process, but Atlanta already owns all of the tie-breaker scenarios with every other NL playoff hopeful. While some have questioned the Braves’ credentials because of their high standing in a weaker division, the head-to-head records show that they are capable of beating the other contenders.
vs. LAD 5-2
vs. STL 4-3
vs. PIT 4-3
vs. CIN 4-3
All of that is well and good when it comes to getting an indication of how things played out between Atlanta and its playoff-bound rivals, but the momentum each team could gain going into October renders the regular season records largely irrelevant. The framework for each series will be built on current personnel and ultimately decided by current circumstances and performance.
If the Braves maintain the best overall record, they will meet the winner of the Wild Card game on October 3 for Game 1 of the National League Division Series. The format has returned to 2-2-1, so the host team gets the first two games before going on the road for the next two and returning home if a decisive 5th game is necessary.
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